In early May a new quality classification was announced for Spanish sparkling wine Cava. The premium Cava del Paraj Calificado will be launched within the year.
While the parameters are yet to be cemented, they will likely cover single vineyard bottlings, reduced yields (even as much as 30 per cent lower) and probably also specify vineyard practices, which will likely need to be organic. It will thus echo the existing Do Pagos system which applies across Spain.
These are dynamic times in the sparkling wine arena. Italian Prosecco has swept to the fore with sales even surpassing those of champagne in the UK, traditionally France’s biggest market. At the same time, the UK’s own sparkling wine industry goes from strength to strength, and Italy’s high-end Franciacorta is also getting the attention it deserves.
It would seem that Spain sparkling is trying to establish as a premium platform to free itself from an everyday drinking, lack-lustre reputation. It is a position that has worked with the marketing of Champagne: Moet for cocktail parties and Dom Perignon for dinner parties.
But how is the premium end of Cava? Sarah James Evans MW, chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine, explains that most of us have had little exposure to it until now, because until the economic downturn in Spain the best wine stayed at home. Now it is entering the export markets at prices which can even exceed US$100 – such as the Agustitorello Mata Kripta Espumoso Brut Nature Grand Reserva 2007 – a fantastically mellow wine with an amazing marzipan nose.
Evans argues that a comparison with Champagne is moot, even though production methods are the same. The grapes are sometimes the same too – some producers use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, or at least blend them with base wines from indigenous grapes. Soil and climate bring a “different complexity of flavour”.
But critically what the wines have, she says, “is a very nice ripeness which you cannot get in Champagne”. She uses the term “generosity” to describe the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir-based wines. This generosity, or ripeness, also means that dosage can be kept to a minimum, which helps to preserve natural freshness. The inexpensive Codorniu Reina Maria Cristina Blanc de Noirs 2013 with its kitchen garden nose is a good example of this: delicate and fresh. A popular dosage level is 3 grammes per litre, which essentially amounts to zero, though most would fall into the 8 to 10 g/l range.
Cava is usually associated with Catalonia (Barcelona is the capital city), but it is also produced in pockets elsewhere in Spain such as Rioja. But those from Catalonia are largely the only premium wines.
About 242 million bottles are produced each year, of which 25 million are premium. The market is dominated by two huge names, Codorniu and Freixenet – though it is interesting to note that both are also producing small amounts of premium wines. The Cuvee de Prestige Casa Sala 2006 from Freixenet comes from the original birthplace of Cava.
Evans suggests that the benefits of research going into the production of those high-end wines is trickling down to entry-level wines, thereby helping to boost quality even of mass produced, commercial wines. Where once basic Cava would rarely even have a bronze medal award, these days some are attaining gold.
Evans comments that we seem “to have come full-circle with indigenous grapes: now these are what we want!” She says that Chardonnay had become too dominant in the Cava profile. The star grape for Cava production seems to be Xarel-lo, which can also be regarded as one of the best white grapes in Spain. It has thin skin, shows an excellent balance of sugars and acids, and gives Cava its ageing ability. It is also highly aromatic.
Xarel-lo is typically blended in varying proportions with Parellada and Macabeo. Cava has a broad diversity of styles and aromas. But the common factor is their delicacy, their cool-climate feel, and their balance and restraint.
One wine already certain to achieve Cava del Paraj Calificado is the Recaredo Brut de Brut Gran Reserva 2006, a wine from a biodynamically-farmed single vineyard belonging to Finca Serral de Vell. A 50:50 blend of Xarel-lo and Macabeo, it is a wine of startling freshness and a truly individual expression of premium Cava.